Industry Profile: Dave Eccles, Founder of CricketSniper


By Ina Steiner
EcommerceBytes.com

July 11, 2004
 




In today's Industry Profile, we interview Dave Eccles. Dave Eccles is founder of CricketSniper (http://www.cricketsniper.com). In 1997, he created the first eBay "bid sniping" program. The tool allows bidders to place last-minute bids on eBay auctions, and Cricket Jr. was the first of many sniping services to follow.

AuctionBytes: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What did you do before you became involved in the online auction industry?

Dave Eccles: The first half of my working life was in management in Southern and later Northern California (Sacramento). I wanted to be outdoors more so I spent five years in construction, an electrician. Around 1994 I got into computers to learn them for a friend that had a trucking business. He wanted to computerize his business. At the time I was working part time with a big California hunting and fishing club in the marketing department. The club work got me out of construction eventually as it was way up my interest alley.

About that time I became involved in auctions buying on a regular basis, "on the circuit," we called it, and sold merchandise to dealers. Dealers couldn't attend every auction, so I learned to buy what I believed they would buy quickly.

Sometime in 1995 a friend and I looked around on the "new" Internet and looked for auctions to sell off the stuff instead of selling to dealers. I found a few but nothing was really happening. In the mean time I learned how to make a web site and made an Internet Antique and Collectible shop online. I felt there was a lot of opportunity there because at the time if you searched you'd find over 30,000 others doing the same. In any event the online store was named Journey's End, and although it did not produce a living, it was exiting to see that it could do $500 to $800 a month. The best news was that I wasn't selling "wholesale" any longer but getting a very fair price for the merchandise.

AuctionBytes: When did you discover online auctions and how did you become involved in them?

Dave Eccles: Later in early 1997 I received a call from New York and a lady wanted to buy all the Dragon ware I had online and she wanted any other piece I could find. It was at this time I learned that what was easy and inexpensive on the west coast seemed to be in demand on the east coast and visa versa. The gal asked me if I had heard of eBay and I told her nope. She gave me the web address and a friend and I investigated. We were very happy to see that an online auction house was doing well. It took me about 2 months to get the courage to experiment. I think it was March or April 1997 I put up half a dozen pieces of inexpensive glass to see what kind of nibbles I could get and more importantly, would I get paid?

The glass sold very well and I got top dollar for it. My friend and I got excited and started listing more. Next thing we knew we were full time eBayers. One of us would attend auctions to preview lots and call in via cell phone to the other with what was found. We'd go onto eBay and find similar items to get an idea of what to final price we might expect. It really helped with the bidding at the live auction to do this.

By mid 1997 I was shipping out between 300 and 400 boxes a month with UPS coming out to the house every day. The garage turned into a shipping station as I called it. It was at this time that I felt the business was going good enough to leave Sacramento and move to the country. So we moved about an hour up into the hills. An hour was about as far as I wanted to go so attending auctions wouldn't be too difficult, and of course if things didn't work out it wouldn't be too bad of a commute to get back to working a real job.

The funniest part of all that was nobody in the city had really heard of eBay up until this time and our other friends in the business at first just kind of pooh-poohed us. Later, when they saw that I had moved out of the city area then began attending auctions like mad and buying all we could afford to buy, they began to wonder about this "eBay" thing and started asking questions.

AuctionBytes: How did you happen to create the first eBay sniping program?

Dave Eccles: In the summer of 1997 eBay was growing beyond their capability to serve the sellers and bidders. What really started this was my web programming skills had improved. eBay put listing/posting limits on all the sellers because their computers at the time couldn't handle the demand. If I remember correctly once per hour for the first 10 or 15 minutes of the hour sellers could list.

It was an agonizing process because you would try to list one auction and because eBay was so jammed up with other sellers trying list in this period of time that often you wouldn't get one item listed because the time period expired. I remember days when you spent a whole day to get one or two items listed!

My friend George and I were in my office bent out of shape big time with frustration when I suddenly jumped up from behind my desk and yelled Eureka! I have an answer to this problem!

George asked me what? What? What? I told him we could reopen 10 or 15 browsers and load each of them up with a ready to go listing. When the hour changed, just pull them up from the task tray and click the submit button one after another. Well it worked and all of our auctions got listed within a minute or so.

After some weeks of doing this that summer we had enough computer freeze ups (Windows 95) that killed all of our lined up browsers that I started thinking that some Javascript in a custom html page that was stored on your hard drive could automate the process. I got to work on it. I had nearly completed it when eBay finally got some new servers up and running and the problem was resolved at their end.

About September 1997 I was also doing a little buying and we were Sniping with two browsers. I had thought about the automation of listing and started to write a little script that could automate bidding, because attending the end of every auction just to snipe bid was a real pain.

Then in October of 1997 I was looking for a way to test the Dutch Auction. I wanted to come up with a way to list one item over and over again. This would take out 80% of the work involved with buying, inventory hassles, photographing and writing descriptions of a unique item.

I needed one item that would sell back that could be unlimited in number but the same. I was on our deck thinking about the problem and what I could use to test the Dutch Auction. I was looking at some oak trees hanging around the deck and I was looking at mistletoe. The idea struck me that we had an unlimited supply of mistletoe and the holiday season was nearly upon us. Over the years when my oldest kids were very young we'd pick mistletoe and they would get permission to stand in front of a supermarket and sell twigs for a buck a piece. We didn't live in the city area any longer so this was not really an option for my remaining kids.

I remarked to my wife that I could write up a very nice ad, put the boys pictures in the ad ages 8 and 10 at the time, and offer a 1/2 pound of mistletoe for $2.50 + shipping. We'd pick a ship date that would fall around Xmas and then ship all at once. The kids could climb the trees, pick the mistletoe and then pack the boxes on ship day.

Well when it was all said and done, the kids made about $700 each for that season. I discovered the Dutch Auction format worked and began looking for something else. My friend George said that he thought a lot of people would like my little automated sniping program. I thought about it and said, sure... I just need to make it user friendly.

I quickly got to work. Then on December 31, I sniped something with the new version with 8 seconds to spare. On January 1, 1998, I put up a Dutch Auction with a 100 available for $9.99. I sold over 300 that month even after eBay shut down my auctions a few times during that month.

AuctionBytes: Could you tell us more about your business today?

Dave Eccles: Things have been much slower since 9-11. We left California and moved to Northern Idaho.

It is more or less on auto pilot while I wait to see what eBay is going to do next. I am not doing much in the way of marketing at all. For the last few years 90% of my sales are word of mouth.

I started designing a new Snipe engine for my program last summer after I discovered some behind-the-scenes tactics they were experimenting with that put the future of Sniping as we know it into serious question. Last November I thought the engine was good enough to go but discovered it was not and due to the fact that changes on eBay have been ongoing, it's been tough to perfect the Snipe engine to the level of perfection that fit my standards. eBay has ongoing changes to this day being made with their sign-in procedures, and this, among non mission critical changes, have kept me continuously working with the program to keep all of its frill features operational. Frill features are those that are not mission critical to getting the bid in on time.

AuctionBytes: What are some of your most memorable experiences in this industry?

Dave Eccles: The story I mentioned about eBay's servers being so bogged down we couldn't list.

In the positive, how much a community eBay was before they went public.

In the negative, the side of eBay that is two-faced and while saying to the public Sniping is OK, they beat up the snipe programmers, killing their auctions and doing things behind the scenes to us.

AuctionBytes: How has the online-auction industry changed since you first became involved?

Dave Eccles: Well the first thing that comes to mind is the trust factor and over commercialized. In the beginning once sellers and buyers learned that each could be trusted, the sky was the limit with what you could do. In the beginning all you had to make to make a fair living was have enough disposable cash on hand to hit every garage sale, flea market and auction you could get your hands on, and if bought right, you made money. Pretty $5 pieces of glass found at the flea market or at auction fetched $20+ on eBay because some collector in Tim Buk Tu didn't have the population I guess without spending a day in the big city to find the pieces they needed for their collections.

If you wanted to make bigger money you learned real quick to specialize. For a while there I couldn't find enough old black amethyst glass or dragon ware, etc. to make the money I could have made!

eBay since then and now has been filled with commercial big time sellers that can produce 100's of listings a day.

AuctionBytes: Do you feel that online merchants are in a better position now than 4 or 5 years ago? Why or why not?

Dave Eccles: I think things for the little guy are much tougher unless they find their niche and specialize.

I think for the big dealers that it is better because they have their shops and eBay to move merchandise. However back in the beginning there was not nearly the competition there is now.

I don't do any selling on eBay now and I only buy a few things here and there with the program to test it so I am not quite in touch with eBay from the selling perspective. From what I have seen though, I think quality merchandise goes for the good dollar to this day. I have spent weeks now looking for a saddle to fit my budget and I have yet to find that $500+ saddle for my 1/2 price (spoiled buyer) budget. It doesn't matter how many saddles are up for sale it seems, the really good ones do not often sell cheap.

Something that has changed for the buyer is that there can be so many. In this example, saddles for sale, on any day of the week, I've lost out on a several saddles that I would have bought had it not been for this next beauty coming up in 12 hours or 3 days!

AuctionBytes: What are the challenges users are facing?

Dave Eccles: I am not completely in tune like I once was. My world of selling revolves around a product that everybody in the know knows they should use to save money and make the buying part of life easier. As long as there are new bidders coming to eBay or learning about snipe programs, I keep selling.

Over commercialization. For buyers, often times I see things being sold for equal money before shipping or more money then if one shopped around locally for newer items. Shipping fees has gone nuts and you better check the sellers shipping policy before you bid, especially if they do not list their shipping fee.

For sellers, finding a niche and being able to compete with those that are big time sellers.

I haven't attended a flea market or auction in some years now but from what I have heard its not like it was because everyone says they'll just sell it on eBay.

AuctionBytes: Can you share with us a tip or trick, or a tool that you use, that helps you sell on eBay more efficiently or makes you life easier?

Dave Eccles: If I was still selling on eBay I'd definitely get a program that can manage my listings and deal with uploading and deleting photos if I didn't use eBay picture service. In addition I'd make sure that the method of accepting payment is tightly integrated with the most common and easy methods.

I'm at the point myself that if they don't take PayPal I look further if the item I am looking for is not a unique one of a kind thing.

For buying, snipe the auction of course for your best chance to save money. My most recent purchase from one of the big dealers was a battery charger and some batteries for my digital camera. I am finding that for things like this, it pays to find a big dealer and after you decide what exactly it is you want, model etc, view all of the sellers' auctions. A lot of the big dealers are buying bulk and you can often find them listing hundreds of their specialty (niche) products. Often I see item X selling for $$ and the bidding is higher then the exact same item the seller has closing in 5 hours or tomorrow with no bids or very little bids. Or the exact same item is mixed in over the course of a week with some Buy It Nows that are commonly now just a few dollars more than the opening bid.

In the case of the battery charger, a lot were selling for $23 to $25 with regular bidding, and I found several that had $21.99 buy it now prices. Digging further now because this particular seller was offering different packages based on the number of rechargeable batteries that came with the package I looked further into the sellers auctions seeing if by chance I could find a buy it now that offered more batteries then another. I found one that had 6 days to go, buy it now for $21.99 with 16 batteries. All the other $21.99 packages were being offered with 12 while those with 16 batteries had buy it now prices of $24.99.

Since this was a very high volume dealer I know to look at all his auctions because so many of the really high volume seller's auctions do not get bids. I see a pattern sometimes that shows the big seller will start lowering the price a bit with buy it nows I suppose trying to find that perfect POS price point.

AuctionBytes: Where do you see the industry headed?

Dave Eccles: Boy that is a tough one for me. It's here to stay for sure, but I think if a seller is not a hobby seller they plan on being a part of the future they are going to have to become better educated business people in order to compete.

AuctionBytes: What are some of the biggest challenges facing online-auction sellers in the next 5 years?

Dave Eccles: Remember when the laser light came up on eBay? $14 for them? That guy made a killing for some weeks before competition came and eventually you could buy them for next to nothing. Finding or creating the next fad item would be a top priority for me :)

If you are not a hobby seller and are in it to make a living I think you have to find ways to get a lot of merchandise and list tons of auctions.

When I was selling antiques and collectibles it was much easier because what I had was unique and one of a kind. With my Snipe program I quickly learned after competition arrived that I had to really focus on positioning myself in the listings so that I had first crack at a person clicking into my auction. So titles were everything and listing at certain key times were another. Then once I had the click as I called it, the description had to get that bid button clicked right then an there. Had the person that clicked on my auction, clicked out they wouldn't be back in my mind.

Those that are selling unique and one of a kind of items like I did, Nippon vases for example will have no trouble getting their good dollar and the challenge they face is getting the piece at a good price to start with. I am not sure the killings are made like they were in the beginning.. How many Nippon vases did I find at flea markets for $25 or less and get $200 for later on Ebay? Probably a lot less now. So being able to buy enough merchandise at planned lesser profit margins to make up the difference?

Today, I think that if you are going to specialize you'd have to have a lot of auctions closing all the time. I rarely look more then a day or so (except for the saddle I am looking for) down the road for this type of thing. I don't because there are thousands of similar items up for sale on eBay.

AuctionBytes: Are you working on any projects for the future?

Dave Eccles: Not eBay software. I am niched in bidding related / snipe software. I am working on 5 other software programs that are planned to be released in the upcoming year or so as they are completed. Niche market stuff.

AuctionBytes: Where do you see your business in 5 years?

Dave Eccles: Well I have so many incredibly loyal customers it's hard to think of me not doing my snipe program for sure. It's amazing how dependent people have become over the program.

I am looking at other outside brick and mortar opportunities right now that are closely in line with my quality of life pursuit. I am looking to spend more time out of the office, out of the building so to speak.

We have horses now and the mountains are always calling me.


About the author:

Ina Steiner is co-founder and Editor of EcommerceBytes and has been reporting on ecommerce since 1999. She's a widely cited authority on marketplace selling and is author of "Turn eBay Data Into Dollars" (McGraw-Hill 2006). Her blog was featured in the book, "Blogging Heroes" (Wiley 2008). Follow her on Twitter at @ecommercebytes and send news tips to ina@ecommercebytes.com.


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